All of these may be more or less true. But I suspect the problem also is that many of us simply were not trained to be techie-types. We got into anthropology because physics, computer science, or mathematics seemed too cold, abstract, and distant. Many of us have a relexive, knee-jerk attitude toward technology which seems to equate it axiomatically with patriarchy, ecological destruction, bodily repression, and control by hierarchical elites. After all, we can see the ways in which electronic technologies have been used to build up massive state surveillance apparati, military-industrial complexes, and complexes. Well, there's another way to look at technology - the way in which the 70s "computer communitarians" did. As a tool for decentralization, individual empowerment, diversity, struggle against "the powers that be," and the creation of wider ranging and deeper human associations than the ones we have today.
Electronic technology can help advance the purposes of anthropology. Anthropologists, like other members of the Academy, have to wake up and smell the coffee. They are information professionals working in an Information Age, whether they like it or not, and it's their job to maintain their preeminence in the infosphere by mastering information technology and convincing people that the information they have is timely, relevant, consequential, and meaningful. Applied anthropologists especially need to understand that as information professionals working outside the academy, information-handling skills will come in handy no matter what sector you end up working in, private, public, or nongovernmental. It's fine to have a healthy skepticism about new electronic media, and to wonder if they might "cheapen" and lower the standards of publishing. The question is, then, do you throw up your hands and bury your head in the sand, or try and devise techniques which enable you to both use the electronic realm's advantages while minimizing its disadvantages?
Regardless of how you gather your data (rapid assessment surveys or postmodern dialogues) or what you want to do with it (create poetic ethnography or do a binomial factor analysis), information technology enables you to share it with a larger number of people more quickly. It may be true that our society is sharply dividing along the lines of info-haves and info-have-nots. Anthropologists clearly want to be in the 'haves,' but there's no reason to abandon our mission meanwhile to ensure that the 'have-nots' get to ride on the Infobahn too... we're clearly not going to wake up and find we have a paperless society overnight. Much of the technology is still maturing. For now, we still have to type in our own tape recorded transcripts by hand - no machine is good enough to recognize our voice, except for our own brain. But there are still some important technological possibilities out there that anthropologists might be missing out on through their technophobia.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the ways in which technology (esp. electronic media) is readily available to most anthropologists right now through the Internet. Almost everything I am talking about you can get to by talking to campus sysadmins or your "net-people" at your organizations. Now, that doesn't mean it won't be a pain in the ass setting up the config file, or that you'll be able to do it totally for free. Nothing's painless - but these things are worth the pain. In addition to the Internet, I will talk somewhat about using technology in the field - something in which I have a great deal of interest but little practical experience. I will also mention some up-and-coming technologies, and another experimental project in which I and the panel organizer, Brad Biglow, have been involved - Topothesia.
Finding people online is also not that hard either. Most 'wired' institutions are running some form of database (Ph, Paradise, etc.) of the email and snail mail addresses of their residents. You can just telnet there and search those directories. However, you may not always know the institution of the person, or even their full name. Fortunately, there exist utilities like Netfind, which do X.500 searching for you. You give them partial names and some other searching criteria, and then they comb email-databases all over the net for responses to your query. Netfind makes finding people as easy as Archie makes finding FTP files in archives. You can also try the various specialized databases, which are often updated more frequently, such as the World Email Directory of Anthropology (WEDA) on the U. Buffalo Wings server.
In addition to finding people and written material, you often want to see "hard numbers" and data. Everyone wants to brag that they gathered all the data themselves, and to boot, to get it, they had to climb uphill both ways. Well, why reinvent the wheel? A great deal of data is already online in such forms as electronic HRAF, SOCIOFILE, LEXIS/NEXIS, UnCover, DIALOG, BRS AfterDark, etc. Many of these commercial databases can only be accessed through commercial online services like Compuserve, and they can be expensive. Others are on CD-ROM, thus "freezing" their contents for all time. Myself, I would like to see more continually updated databases available on the Internet all the time... like the archaeological database, for example. The social sciences are, once again, behind the physical sciences, in putting their data sets online for everybody to get their hands on.
Once you've found yourself a database, the sheer volume of it is likely to crush you. Data may exist for incredibly long periods of time, when you're just interested in a very short time series. While you're fumbling through the data, the "meter" on commercial online services may also be running, costing you a hefty penny. Fortunately, Internet tools such as WAIS are starting to incorporate the feature of relevance searching. WAIS not only looks for keywords, it tells you the documents in which they appear the most often. The problem with the Internet is a surfeit of information - there's more there than any human being could possibly ever deal with. This is why the new generation of searching tools will be invaluable for the online researcher. Boolean operators and search settings (title, introduction, conclusion, etc.) allow you to narrow your searches to very specific areas of focus.
I think it's counterproductive to put valuable databases like the HRAF, with all of its massive reams of coded cross-cultural data, on CD-ROM. Once issued what way, they are permanent, unless one releases an annual 'supplement' or 'update,' such as Micro$oft does with its Encarta Encyclopedia. A networked database is more accessible to people without CD-ROM drives or multimedia-readiness. It lets people use their own choice of search tools, rather than whatever indexing tools exist on a given CD. And it's fluid and always ready to incorporate new data. For a while, it seemed like anthropological CD-ROMs were going to be a hot market. But the truth is, networked databases are better. I suspect the main reason they are less prevalent is that in that other (online) form they can't be bought or sold.
Most people first turn to email lists for collaboration. Unfortunately, these email lists frequently are the site of ongoing battles over their level of signal/noise ratio. Some people want email lists to only offer announcements and news. Others want lists where there's discussion and feedback. On those kind of lists, some kind of moderator is often needed just to make sure flame wars and other difficulties don't get out of hand. Many people come to lists and protest about how useless they are. In my opinion, they don't "get it" about what such lists are about. If people are frustrated over a lack of discussion about certain topics, they should initiate those threads themselves. One person's idle banter is another's vital information; clearly on lists with 100, 700, or 2000 subscribers, people are not all going to agree on what's appropriate or relevant.
People continually voice their frustration over the lack of finding things they consider interesting on mailing lists. They often complain about receiving too much useless material. This problem can be solved by using a mailreader program. As these programs get more advanced, they can be set with more complex 'filters' so that mail from certain sources or on certain topics is either prioritized or killed. Well, fortunately, the alternative to the mailing list also exists - the Usenet newsgroup. Ideal in conception, the newsgroup doesn't force you to read through every thread posted to it. You can choose to read only the threads, and messages in those threads, you find interesting. There may be 100 articles posted, but Usenet lets you read only the 1 or 2 you're interested in.
Fine and dandy. But many people soon find that the higher-bandwidth Usenet is also higher-use than most academic email lists. There are 3000+ newsgroups, but since people can be in principle subscribed to all 3000 simultaneously, many of these groups can have a pool of several thousand participants, whereas academic email lists limit communication to a fixed subscriber list of usually around several hundred people. Anthropologists have to share sci.anthropology not just with their fellow scholars, but the whole huddled masses of the Internet - thus also crazed kooks pestering them about creationism, racial intelligence, and the theories of Ludwig von Plutonium. Because unfortunately, Usenet is the great public square of the Internet, and anything you post there can result in email feedback from anybody who happens upon your posting.
The limits of email and newsgroups are that they are, as I said, asynchronous. I post, you reply a few days later. If asynchronous communication were all we needed, none of us would need anything more than postal mail for our collaboration and discussion. But I suspect most of us could not get by without the telephone, or conferences like this one, because we need the synchronous back-and-forth real-time communication that leads to good brainstorming and planning and Q & A feedback. So, facilities do exist for this. Unfortunately, most of the 'real-time' discussion facilities on Internet are recreational, just as are the chat rooms on most online services. You can gather together a group of scholars together on an Internet Relay Chat such as #anthropology, but realize you're sharing space with such other illustrious channels as #hottub and #tinysex, who can send participants over to your channel if it's not closed...
There are also MUDs and MOOs, a few of which, like the MediaMOO, have been specifically tailored for academic collaboration. There's much potential in this area. In addition to just ASCII communication, on a well-designed MOO, you can express to your colleagues emotions and physical reactions, create objects and rooms to illustrate your arguments, and have much more interesting interactions... but in my opinion the main limitation of most MOOs remains their all-textual nature. They will be much more interesting, and useful, when they are more visually complex. Sort of based on the MOO model, there are more interesting real-time client-server collaborative workspaces being developed. These have such things as "whiteboards" that multiple networked participants can write and draw on, and mechanisms to carefully control turn-taking and response so as to prevent discussion from being drowned out by everybody 'talking' at once.
What may eventually eliminate the need for what we're doing right now - sitting physically in a conference room - is teleconferencing. It's the "next big thing" everyone is hungering for on the Internet. Let's face it, we want to be able to SEE and HEAR and EXPERIENCE the obnoxiousness of our colleagues. That's what going to a conference is all about. The technology isn't all there - but once more institutions get on the MBONE, and more institutions install video and audio input sources, the potential for multiple-person teleconferencing will be there. Already you can make an "Internet videophone call" to someone who is also running the CU-See Me utility devised at Cornell. The sound and video's awful, but we're getting there. Sure, you may miss out on the things that make real-life conferences great, like trying to score some action with the opposite sex, enjoying great hotel food, seeing the sights of dismal hellhole cities, missing flights, and stuffing yourself in an elevator with 800 other people. Teleconferencing may not replace regular conferences, but for people who don't have the money to jet-set to gigs all over the globe, it's a reasonable alternative.
So along came gopher. Wonderful tool. In my opinion, if you want to make text-only documents quickly and easily available to people, there's nothing better. Same thing with electronic journals. Now you could email your paper to somebody, who would then put it in an electronic journal which is distributed to various online library collections and a subscriber list. The main limitation here remains that the document can be ASCII only. No images, no charts, no tables or graphs, no photographs, etc. Now, anthropology is an enterprise of a multimediac nature! Unlike our social science cousins like the economists, anthropologists want to bring back not just the cold hard facts of another's social reality - we want people to experience it, to see the world the way they do. And multimedia gives us the way to do it!
Ethnomusicologists can transcribe music from the field into written notation, and other anthropologists can use "thick description" to attempt to convey verbally the visual and sensory experience of living in another culture. But ultimately, multimedia allows anthropology's audience to see and hear for itself. Realizing this, some anthropologists have started to release ethnographic CD-ROMs. These have potential - many go beyond mere ethnographic film by allowing the user to creatively "navigate" through all the various kinds of data. But the main problem here again is that the data are fixed. If you want to add more images or sounds or video to your Yanomami Live! CD-ROM, you've got to release another version of it. It's hard to keep the information dynamic and fresh. And you won't know people's feedback and reactions to it.
The solution to this problem is, of course, the World Wide Web, that wonderful contrivance that is taking the net by storm. WWW was originally designed by CERN as a means of carrying hypertext-linked preprints and papers. Little did they know that the Web would be overrun with people seeking to open commercial kiosks, virtual toilets and coffeepots, and other things too bizarre to mention. What's great about the Web is that documents can be seamlessly hyperlinked together; and that uniform platform-independent tags can be used to set apart text that is a blockquote, ordered list, emphasized, footnote, etc.; and that most Web browsers can present people with a wide range of multimedia file types through various 'helper' applications. Further, the Web sort of "eats up" the rest of the Internet. Browsers like (that's how you pronounce N-E-T-S-C-A-P-E) let you read newsgroups, send mail, browse gophers, start telnet sessions, FTP files, and provide interactivity through scripts and forms. The HTML standard is a constantly evolving one, soon now to allow for variable fonts, better mathematical notation, and other improvements.
Almost any machine can function as a WWW server. Just put on the http engine, give it an Ethernet link and TCP/IP domain address, and convert all the files over to HTML. Something less than a 386/030 would probably fail at the job (the 5th or so simultaneous user would have big problems) but you don't need a massively parallel workstation either. Information on the Web is just that - world-readable. Interestingly, the next round of innovations may seek to attempt to control just that. People who do only want to provide information for a limited audience may be able to use domain access restrictions, account limitations, or cryptography to control who can read what on their site. The Web enables everybody to publish their works and get feedback on them, quickly, cheaply, and easily. And no trees are felled in the process.
Well, in these situations, without access to remote technology, we have to bring technology with us into the field. Many of us do do this to some degree as a matter of course. Visual anthropologists bring videocameras and almost all of us carry tape recorders. But that often seems to be it as far as what kinds of information management we want to have in the field. Nothing dare replace the sacred pencil and pad of torn and tattered field notes. Maybe we'll take along a shortwave radio, to keep up with the Voice of America. But that's it. Many of us still think "personal communications devices" and organizers are things for yuppies and corporate America. Still, a personal digital assistant/organizer or laptop can be an invaluable tool in making sure that important things noted in the field are not lost when we go through the trials of sorting field notes six months later.
The newest PDAs take advantage of the fact that information can go out over the airwaves as well as through cables or phone lines. They use cellular radio transmission to connect to information services; send messages to pagers, networks, beepers, and faxes; and retrieve data from your remote PC or laptop. Unfortunately, they provide no panacea, since the cellular infrastructure in most countries is pretty neglible also. This problem will only be resolved when we can use sattelite systems for transmission. Fortunately, one kind of PDA already uses geosynchronous orbiting sattelites - the Global Positioning System (GPS) - and it can enable anthropologists to quickly ascertain their location in the field. As the versatility and power of PDAs increases, they'll also be useful for such things as navigation, visual and audial recording and transcription, raw data monitoring, and language translation - all of which an anthropologist can use in the field.
Clearly, PDAs devised for the anthropologist will need to take field conditions into account. Because of the humid climes to which many anthropologists transit, many an electronic device has succumbed in the field. A "field-tested" PDA will very likely need to be thoroughly waterproof, as well as bug and fungus-proof. It will have to be especially sturdy and durable. It should not have short-lived batteries (electrical sockets don't grow on trees, as they say) and perhaps ideally might charge directly from solar power. The screen should be visible under a wide variety of lighting conditions. The device should be lightweight and easy to carry - otherwise it's ridiculous to call it "portable." And it should have a lot of data storage capacity - you may not get all this stuff back to your PC for six months.
Sadly, such a PDA doesn't exist today. It should. Anthropologists are unfortunately a vertical "niche" market, and it's not likely that companies like Sanyo or Toshiba or Apple are likely to cater to our particular needs in the near future. That's too bad - many of us have a good deal of disposable income! A good PDA would basically be an all-purpose field assistant, doing all that drudgery that we otherwise give to field assistants, except that it's not mobile. Maybe in fifteen years... "Newton, go and interview all those witch doctors over in the next village, and tell me what they think of this herbal remedy!" in any case, like a good field assistant, it shouldn't die in the field either. I suspect it's going to take an anthropologist with a techie background to eventually build our dream PDA - but she will die a very rich person.
Perceptions are dependent on culture and language, as we all know, so the plume of the Quetzal bird or the smell of cacao may not be experienced quite the same by an Aztec and a Hottentot. We can never say whether all we're really doing is simulating the reality of another's cultural experience - but then, that's all we can ever do with our conventional ethnography and heuristic models anyway! VR allows us to make explicit our models of how other cultures perceive the world. We can create VR "worlds" which approximate a sense of the numinous found in other societies but perhaps lacking in modern technological cultures. VR worlds don't have to obey scientific Western laws - so they can perhaps be ideal for representing non-Western cultures' experience of reality.
Culture is more than perception, though, and some people might accuse such an approach of being fakery. Have we really communicated the experience of a poor Bangladeshi boy merely by showing what he sees and hears, if we don't somehow also represent the hunger he feels in his belly, the anger he feels at his situation, or the desire he feels to escape his village? Still, there's no reason to think that VR might not someday also be able to capture physical, emotional, and intellectual experience - sort of like the technology in the movie Brainstorm. It's a new technology, with so far unmapped potentials. Right now it's nowhere real enough to even be virtual, let alone reality, but the curve of improvement in this particular technology seems to be exponential.
I suspect the true VR breakthroughs will come when the developers give up on trying to fool the eye and come up with ways of fooling the brain, which is where vision and other sensations really take place. What people want when they think of virtual reality is the Star Trek Holodeck - something that's totally immersive and so realistic that there's no reason to think you've ever left "real" reality. No headsets or bulky equipment, no sense of transition... we aren't there yet. Needless to say, when the technology gets to that point of advancement, it will also represent a great danger to society. Virtual worlds are created by real life people and programmers with real life interests, so anthropologists should bear that in mind when doing their virtual ethnographies.
Related VR technologies like telepresence and teleoperation may also provide benefits to anthropology in the future. It sounds hokey and science-fictiony, but there's no reason to think that someday robot explorers may not be doing what human explorers are doing today. They already are doing work for us, in space; and teleoperated robots may allow the anthropologist to witness firsthand situations (such as an outbreak of plague or civil wars) which might be too dangerous to visit in the flesh. Such technologies may jeopardize the "human touch" of anthropology, granted; but they might also save a lot of anthropologists' lives. It's worth thinking about.
But what's the point of just putting a print journal into the electronic medium unchanged? This is the way that most online journals have done it. Why not just run a print journal through a bunch of scanners? They have the same editorial organization and content structures as a print journal, and appear on a regular schedule without any modification like a print journal, and have the same boring text-n-tables of a print journal. They don't take advantage of the electronic hypermedium, which (on the WWW) enables the would-be 'publisher' to incorporate seamlessly multimedia (audio, video, 3D animations, etc.); create a dynamic text which is hyperlinked to other relevant documents and constantly evolves from feedback and commentary; and have an "open system" of collaborators and participants rather than just a fixed stodgy old editorial board and peer review board.
Our hope for Topothesia is that it will not quite be an electronic journal. In fact, I call it an "information singularity" - you throw data at it, and if it's good stuff, then it sticks. Topothesia's goal is information accretion. The data to be found in Topothesia may be all over the Net. Maybe my review of book X is on my home page, and Brad's review of article Y is on his. Fine. The diehard surfer can go all over the place to find X, Y, and Z. What Topothesia does is gather it in one place for her. There have been, and will continue to be, debates over how formal Topothesia should be. I of course want it to be experimental and avant-garde and knock peoples' socks off, and I don't want to worry too much about dense 10-page style and submission guidelines, and arcane protocols of referencing, indexing, and blind peer review. Topothesia is like a vortex - it hurls data at you real rapidly, so just make sure you have a catcher's mitt when you get close.
So, Topothesia may not come out on a regular schedule. It may not have a fixed editorial board. There won't be any 'issues' - content areas of Topothesia may change at different rates. It will do most of the things print journals do - reviews, announcements and calls for papers, etc. - but it will also try to do some things they don't. Many people on the Net have openly wondered about whether people are just too "stuck" on the journal model for publishing. Why does Topothesia have to look like a journal? Another way to do it might be to design it like a house, with rooms you "visit" to get to the different content areas... this is just an idea, and it's not the only one to break us out of the print-tunnel-vision people often suffer from when coming into post-Gutenberg cyberspace.
The question becomes, tho, if Topothesia breaks with all these established academic conventions, what's going to be the value of publishing in it? Will it get you tenure? If you're an applied type, will it get your contract renewed? Actually, I would hope that applied anthros, who know the ridiculous constraints of the academic publishing model, would see the obvious advantages something like Topothesia has to offer. And as to the first question -- I have no doubt that academic conservatives will feel something like Topothesia isn't worth publishing in. To them, Fast + Cheap + Widespread = worthless. That's why an article in NATURE is worth more than, say, DISCOVER. Some people may never be convinced of the merits of electronic publishing. Some will continue to have extreme skepticism over whether it serves the academic need for durability and permanence of information. Yet others still think it cuts off access to audiences in the Third and Fourth Worlds.
All that is fine. Some people will never be convinced. But the question is as to whether institutional structures will adapt. I hope they will. Electronic publishing should not be epiphenomenal to your career - it should be just as central as print when tenure time comes around. Print isn't dead, but the time to advance anthropology through post-print experiments is now. Topothesia exists to disseminate information about cyberethnography, but it's own existence is also an implicit argument for the use of electronic publishing. We want to show people what you can do. And new ways of thinking about getting it done. If you're interested in getting 'on board' with Topothesia, talk to me or Brad after the panel finishes.
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